Reflections on News of My Death!
by Botsalo Ntuane
News of my death broke two days before Christmas, while attending a relative’s funeral in Mahalapye.
I had, in the company of two mates, driven down on a Saturday afternoon so as to arrive in town early enough to condole and mingle with other mourners ahead of the Sunday burial.
In years past, I would have hit the road at the crack of dawn. But nowadays wary of road mishaps and being a late sleeper who tends to switch off in the wee hours, I no longer risk the morning drives lest my body disengages in response to its internal clock, rendering me asleep at the wheel.
In my early forties, I am at that point where I am no longer young, and though still some distance from middle age, every activity that calls for exertion, both physical and mental, is beginning to take its toll. For some reason, on that evening, many lodgings in Mahalapye were fully booked. Eventually we managed to find rooms at highly inflated rates, the hoteliers cannily responding to the Keynesian law of demand and supply. After spending time at the bereaved home followed by a few drinks, we retired so as to make it in time for the start of proceedings in the morning. There was a time when out of frustration at the very early starting times for local funerals, I followed my own code of arriving when most of the speeches were done and the programme was winding down. I do not recall a pre or post funeral conversation where I never lament the starting times.
That, and the lack of enough seating for mourners are my two gripes if anything needs to be changed about how we grieve and send off our dear departed. On both counts, I have now conceded defeat. I have accepted that if I am resolved to attend a funeral then I might as well pitch on time so as fulfill all the rites. It is decidedly bad form to amble in when everyone else has made a conscious effort to arrive as per convention.
I still disagree with the ungodly starting hours, but given that I can’t change the world, I now make an effort to conform as much as I can. The chronic shortage of chairs, which makes seating something of a privilege also compels me to observe time. The saving grace is that as a public person, seating can be arranged even if I arrive midway. But it’s no consolation when weighed against the embarrassment of having to walk in, avoiding eye contact with a solemn assembly of people simply because you consider your sleep time more valuable than the grief of the bereaved.
I guess I would have known about my death around midnight, or thereabouts had my mobile been on. As fate would have it, I was unable to charge my battery in that overpriced room. So it spent the night in the room of a travelling mate. By 05:30am I was up, ready and relived I hadn’t overslept and would therefore adhere to the unfriendly starting time by taking my seat at 06:00am latest.
I would even have time to view the corpse. This, again, represents a change in my code for funerals. For many years, I had opted not to do any viewing. My rationale was that its better, and less spooky, to remember the deceased in terms of what they looked like whilst alive rather than recalling them in deathly repose every time they come to mind. I mean, I have been to funerals where some mourners pay their last respects by going for a second viewing, urged on by the animated director of proceedings.
And so to the funeral we went. Arriving in good time, we did the viewing and were ushered to comfortable seating. My mobile, recharged and returned, it began vibrating as pending messages streamed in.
There are certain rituals at local funerals. Of the unpardonable sins, one is to let your cellphone ring. In fact, at the start of proceedings, the man in charge; invariably it’s always a man or two; announces housekeeping rules and mourners without fail are sternly told to keep their phones off or on silent. This is in stark contrast to a time when the cellphone was new in this country and its possession was next to the car, the ultimate symbol of civilisation.
I recall a funeral many years ago in the township of Botshabelo in Phikwe. I got my first mobile in December 1998, so the funeral must have been earlier. Unlike today’s sleek and featherweight mobiles, back then the thing was a chunky device resembling a brick. The few owners of a cellphone enjoyed near celebrity status and they lapped up the glory as we watched in wonderment and envy, dreaming of some day owning ourselves one. I suspect those early inventions did not have a silent mode. What used to happen was that in a gathering, it would shrill at volume, and the owner instead of muting it would rise and with all the self importance they could muster, either whisper in conversation or walk away to speak at the top of their voices. In this particular instance, the owner was one of the pastors from the independent churches. A burly man, lushly bearded just like the prophets in the Old Testament, and resplendent in sweeping blue robes with a huge white cross embroidered on the back, he rose from where the clergy sat, strolled through the ranks of mourners to position himself where he was out of earshot but from where he could dazzle the gawkers. Done with his conversation he strolled back through the same mesmerized crowd. There was not a squeak from the awestruck director of proceedings who clearly did not own a mobile. That was then.
Nowadays, there is strict cellphone etiquette at funerals. With Botswana’s mobile market penetration in excess of 100 percent, practically everyone owns a cell phone. So when my own mobile, on silent, persisted with messages and calls I tip toed away. The first call I took was my national service comrade, Kaelo’s. The man was shaken and the relief in his voice was palpable when he asked if I was ok to which I answered affirmatively. Upon prodding he broke news of my death. He had been called by someone at around 4am informing him that Ntuane the legislator was late. From then on, I was seized with the duty of calling all the numbers I had missed. Mind you, I am at a funeral and now have to inform people that I am, in fact, still alive. I then decided to dispatch a message as follows; ‘Folks, I am attending a cousin’s funeral in Mahalapye. I am still alive. Sadly the person who passed away is Ass Minister Motowane. Not Ntuane’.
Fortunately, my parents and other close relations were at the same funeral. My most pressing concern then became my wife, now a widow with a one year old child. The thing about death is that it is not foretold in advance. One moment you are with someone the next their life is extinguished. It happens to many spouses and families every day. It could have happened with me. Anyway, since I was not dead, I sent her the same message. Later on, she would tell me how not a single soul broke the news to her. Whilst people were discussing my death she was ensconced in some safety bubble until she received my message.
But how did I feel? How do you feel when told you are dead? Unlike Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist figure whose death was induced by reading a premature obituary of his demise, I didn’t kick the bucket there and then. But the initial reaction is shock and then overwhelming relief that hey, you are in fact alive and kicking. This, moreso because my death came during a trying period in my life when, for some reason, I had been burying many acquaintances.
Beginning November, I had attended a burial for four consecutive weeks without break. Other funerals I missed because they took place concurrently. November 2012 to the end of the year was a time when the grim reaper cut a swathe through my social circles. Hoping for respite in the new year, the dying continues. As I write this piece, I am burying another acquaintance this week end.
He was in his early forties. Against this backdrop my own passing would be nothing out of the ordinary. It would have been seen in the context of a bad mortality cycle for a particular group of people in their forties.
That said, the vast majority of those who die never get the benefit of being told they are dead. When they die they are dead forever. Only a few of us can have the morbid pleasure of dismissing reports of our death as premature and exaggerated, to echo Mark Twain. With the benefit of ‘ experience’, my death had the sobering effect of showing me that when you are dead the rest of the world moves on with its daily pursuits. None of us is so important as to stop the world from its activities. When I was supposedly dead, life was going on. There was traffic on the roads, some early morning drunks were staggering home and Mahalapye and other parts of Botswana were buzzing along nicely. With the shock over, I wanted to find out how others had reacted to my untimely death. One of the messages received by a sibling read as follows’ Mod, what happnd to your brother? Sory abt the loss my friend. God be with you’. A message sent to a friend went ‘ Hi monico’just learnt with great shock abt botsalo, culd that be true?can I call?’. I asked friends to forward me messages they had received. Some sounded heartfelt. Others were just mechanical expressions of sympathy. I could imagine some wondering why Ntuane had to die during the festive season when their holiday plans were already in place. A few of the guys started referring to me as ‘the late’ , all in good humour.
However, there is something much more fundamental about dying unexpectedly. Are there certain things the deceased ought to have done had they known they were destined to die in the afternoon of the morning they wake up? The lesson is that because we never know exactly when we are going to die, it is vital to get lots of things in order. For instance, when you are married with family, how have you catered for them? If you are single but in a relationship what happens to your partner? If you have an estate have you paused to draft a will? The list of things to do is infinite. Do you want to have a say in how your funeral must be conducted such as deciding who will speak and the line up of pallbearers? If you are not a person of faith do you want to change your ways or you are ready to die without spiritual anchor? Do you have enemies with whom to settle old scores before you go six feet under?
How about apologizing to those you have upset during your heydays walking this earth? For family and other dependents what have you put in place for their sustenance? Have you made sure there won’t be any fights over your life policy? If you running a business what happens to it? As for debts, well somebody must inherit them. But it’s always better if you have a personal loan that is life insured because these banks should get a taste of their own medicine at times. The questions regarding things that need to be taken care of are myriad and cannot all be dealt with.
The lesson I derive from my reported death, instructive to all the living, is that every waking moment of our lives must be spent with the knowledge that death can visit any minute.
As an African, I think we have a peculiar pathology about death. We skirt around the subject, in the process forever postponing certain essential obligations which would make life easier for those remaining behind. This pathology seems to say if you think about death and go about preparing for it, you might just be placing a jinx on yourself and hastening your demise.
On a lighter note, besides a greater appreciation for every day you breathe, an incorrect death notice gives you a profound perspective on how fickle life can be. You can be here now then gone in a puff. Therefore, when you have a second chance because of a false alarm, you must live to the fullest and try to do all the things you’ve always longed to do. In terms of personal ethics, be nice to people; be of good heart; love everyone; be charitable and create a blissful vibe around yourself. Life is too precious to waste on negative energy.
No less importantly be sure, where it doesn’t offend anyone, to spend your remaining time according to your own terms because every day is a bonus. This entails having a bucket list of things to do before you die. It won’t be possible to accomplish them all, but at least, to paraphrase the hip hop artiste, 50 Cents, die trying!